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Trailblazing 19th-Century Astronomer Maria Mitchell on Social Change and the Life of the Mind

“Reformers are apt to forget… that the world is not made up entirely of the wicked and the hungry, there are persons hungry for the food of the mind, the wants of which are as imperious as those of the body.”

Trailblazing 19th-Century Astronomer Maria Mitchell on Social Change and the Life of the Mind

“Everybody should have something to point to,” a mill laborer told Studs Terkel in a beautiful conversation about the dignity of labor. For the vast majority of human history, the vast majority of human labor has been exerted in the direction of alleviating hunger as the basis for the survival of our species — only an unhungry species, after all, can flourish into a civilization. And yet there is a different kind of hunger elemental to the flourishing of a civilization — a hunger of the mind and of the spirit for justice, for peace, for freedom, for the continual reform of society toward expanding the collective landscape of possibility for happiness. At bottom, it is a hunger for knowledge and truth, for without knowing the world as it truly is, we cannot build toward what it could be or should be. The ideal always rests upon and rises from the real, as should rests upon and rises from is.

“We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire,” the trailblazing astronomer and abolitionist Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) wrote as she considered our human search for truth while she was building whole new worlds of possibility for women. Living through the dawning days of liberalism, when social reformers and moralists were fixated on alleviating hunger and eradicating sin while denying more than half the population basic social agency — women and people of color could neither vote, nor own property, nor receive higher education — Mitchell was acutely aware of how intellectual and creative hunger thwarted the growth of the individual and thus the growth of society as a whole.

Portrait of Maria Mitchell (Maria Mitchell Museum, photograph by Maria Popova)

She addressed this in an exquisite diary entry included in Figuring (which long ago began as a biography of Mitchell and from which this essay is excerpted). Writing in her late thirties, several years after her historic comet discovery made her the first woman admitted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Mitchell reflects on the neglected bedrock of social change:

Reformers are apt to forget, in their reasoning, that the world is not made up entirely of the wicked and the hungry, there are persons hungry for the food of the mind, the wants of which are as imperious as those of the body… Reformers are apt to forget too, that the social chain is indomitable; that link by link it acts together, you cannot lift one man above his fellows, but you lift the race of men. Newton, Shakespeare and Milton did not directly benefit the poor and ignorant but the elevation of the whole race has been through them. They probably found it hard to get publishers, but after several centuries, the publishers have come to them and the readers have come, and the race has been lifted.

A decade earlier, Mitchell had devoured Woman in the Nineteenth Century, which struck her with resonance not only political but personal. In the epoch-making book that ignited women’s bid for equality, Margaret Fuller had envisioned a day when a “female Newton” would be possible. And yet Mitchell doesn’t seem to have fully envisioned how her own life was making that possibility real for generations to come. In the revolutionary Aurora Leigh, which was published months after Mitchell penned this diary entry and would soon become one of her favorite books, Elizabeth Barrett Browning captured how those who ignite the profoundest revolutions are themselves blind to their own spark:

The best men, doing their best,
Know peradventure least of what they do:
Men usefullest i’ the world, are simply used…

Maria Mitchell
Maria Mitchell

One of America’s first scientific celebrities, Mitchell traveled to Europe in her fortieth year, visiting with some of the most prominent artists and scientists of the Old World. Upon returning from the land of Milton and Shakespeare and Browning, she was greeted by an extraordinary gift — a five-inch refractor telescope, on a par with the instruments of the world’s greatest observatories, purchased through what may have been the world’s first crowdfunding campaign for science.

The great education reformer Elizabeth Peabody had envisioned the project and spent years raising the $3,000 for the telescope through a subscription paper, rallying Boston’s women to contribute. Just as Mitchell was departing for her European journey, Emerson — the era’s most esteemed cultural sage — had lent his voice to the fundraising effort in the pages of his popular magazine:

In Europe, Maria Mitchell would command the interest and receive the homage of the learned and polite, while in America so little prestige is attached to genius or learning that she is relatively unknown. This is a great fault in our social aspect, one which excites the animadversion of foreigners at once. “Where are your distinguished women — where your learned men?” they ask, as they are invited into our ostentatiously furnished houses to find a group of giggling girls and boys, or commonplace men and women, who do nothing but dance, or yawn about till supper is announced. We need a reform here, most especially if we would not see American society utterly contemptible.

Maria Mitchell’s first telescope, with which she had made her famous comet discovery, still on display at her humble Quaker childhood home on Nantucket. (Maria Mitchell Museum, photograph by Maria Popova)

While touring Europe’s iconic astronomical institutions, Mitchell had been dreaming up an observatory of her own. The crowdfunded telescope came as a wondrous surprise after a particularly difficult stretch for her, marked by the death of her beloved, Ida, and her once-brilliant mother’s terrifying descent into dementia. The instrument became the first physical building block of her dream. Behind the school resembling a Greek temple where her father had once served as founding schoolmaster, she erected a simple eleven-foot dome that rotated on a mechanism made of cannonballs. A month before Darwin published On the Origin of Species, the observatory opened its doors and Mitchell, now the Newton of Nantucket, began welcoming boys and girls.

Maria Mitchell (top row, third from left) with the first astronomy class at Vassar, 1866
Maria Mitchell (top row, third from left) with the first astronomy class at Vassar, 1866

During her time in Italy the previous year, she had hungered to visit the Observatory of Rome, mecca of the latest research on spectroscopy, but was jarred to learn that the observatory was closed to women. The polymathic mathematician Mary Somerville, for whom the word scientist had been coined a quarter century earlier and who was celebrated as Europe’s most learned woman, had been denied entrance, as had Sir John Herschel’s daughter. Mitchell recorded wryly in her diary:

I was ignorant enough of the ways of papal institutions, and, indeed, of all Italy, to ask if I might visit the Roman Observatory. I remembered that the days of Galileo were days of two centuries since. I did not know that my heretic feet must not enter the sanctuary, — that my woman’s robe must not brush the seats of learning.

She was eventually allowed to enter with special permission from the Pope, obtained after American diplomats pressed on her behalf. An hour and a half before sunset, she was led through the church into the observatory, where she marveled at the expensive instruments the papal government employed in studying the very motions for which they had tried Galileo two centuries earlier. Mitchell had hoped to see nebulae through the observatory’s powerful telescope, but she was informed that her permission did not extend past nightfall and was hastily sent away. She must have resolved, as soon as the back door spat her out into the narrow alley behind Collegio Romano, that when she built her own observatory, it would welcome any and all who hungered to commune with the cosmos.

For more excerpts from Figuring, see Elizabeth Peabody on middle age and the art of self-renewal, environmental pioneer Rachel Carson’s timeless advice to the next generations, Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters, and the story of how the forgotten sculptor Harriet Hosmer paved the way for women artists, then revisit Maria Mitchell on knowing what to do with your life and how friendship transforms us.


Trailblazing Astronomer Maria Mitchell on How We Co-Create Each Other and Recreate Ourselves Through Friendship

“Whatever our degree of friends may be, we come more under their influence than we are aware.”

Trailblazing Astronomer Maria Mitchell on How We Co-Create Each Other and Recreate Ourselves Through Friendship

“We can count on so few people to go that hard way with us,” Adrienne Rich wrote in her exquisite meditation on the art of honorable human relationships. While it is hard enough to inoculate the integrity of the word “friend” against today’s epidemic of misuse and overuse, it can be even harder to calibrate our expectations of those who have earned the benediction of the title — the chosen few we have admitted into the innermost chambers of the heart and entrusted with going that hard way with us. “Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship,” Seneca counseled in contemplating true and false friendship, “but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul.” Two millennia later, the question of whom to welcome and to what extent remains one of the most delicate discernments with which life tasks us.

An uncommonly thoughtful, nuanced, and enriching reflection on calibrating the heart in friendship comes from pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889), who led the way for women in science and to whom I dedicated The Universe in Verse.

Portrait of Maria Mitchell (Maria Mitchell Museum, photograph by Maria Popova)

In a diary entry from the first day of 1855, found in Maria Mitchell: A Life in Journals and Letters (public library), Mitchell resolves to have more balanced relationships and reflects on how unwise it is to turn a single person into the center of gravity in one’s emotional universe. Instead, one’s attachments should be distributed among many people, each fulfilling a different need — one providing intellectual stimulation, another rendering us “more elastic and buoyant, more happy and radiating more happiness, because we know him,” another inspiring in us such “warmth of affection” that “our hearts grow as if in a summer feeling.” Long after Aristotle contemplated “what makes for a good happiness-enhancing friendship,” Mitchell writes:

A friend is not to be found in the world such as one can conceive of, such as one needs, for no human being unites so many of the attributes of God as we feel our nature requires…. We have therefore a circle whom we call friends, giving a name to the whole, which perhaps in its singular occupation might be used for the combination. Out of the whole circle we may make up a single friend. We love them all but we love the union of all better.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from a vintage ode to friendship by Janice May Udry

The friends with whom we encircle ourselves, Mitchell reminds us, become instrumental in the architecture of our own character — after all, it is through relationships, as Van Gogh wrote to his brother, that we refine ourselves. Our choice of relationships can either reinforce the limiting patterns of thought and feeling that have long governed us, or decondition them by helping us learn new patterns of attachment and orientation of being. Mitchell writes:

Whatever our degree of friends may be, we come more under their influence than we are aware.

Who of us acts and speaks without an eye to the approbations of those he loves? Is not the assent of another a sort of second conscience? … We prop ourselves up with accomplices, we surround ourselves with those who can down for us the uprisings of conscience.

And yet this interdependence, Mitchell is careful to observe, is not a weakness of human nature but one of its greatest and most beautiful features:

Who judges a work of art and sees only with his own eyes? Who listens to a lecture and hears only with his own ears? We turn aslant as we stand before the picture to see what good judges are looking. We open the guide book to see what we ought to admire…. Insensibly our judgment is inspired by that of those around us. It is not a weakness to be deplored. We were more than conceited did we rate ourselves so much above the rest of the world that we needed no outward aids to judgment. We were born dependent, our happiness is in the hands of others. Our character is molded by them and receives its coloring from them as much as our feeling relates the parental impress.

Complement this particular fragment of Maria Mitchell: A Life in Journals and Letters with Emerson on the two pillars of friendship, Andrew Sullivan on why its rewards can exceed those of romantic love, and the Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue on the ancient Celtic ideal of friendship, then revisit Mitchell on science, spirituality, and our conquest of truth and the art of knowing what to do with your life.

UPDATE: Find more of Maria Mitchell, her unusual life, and her far-reaching legacy, in my book Figuring.


Trailblazing Astronomer Maria Mitchell on Science, Spirituality, and the Conquest of Truth

“We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire.”

Trailblazing Astronomer Maria Mitchell on Science, Spirituality, and the Conquest of Truth

“The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both,” Carl Sagan wrote shortly before his death. An entire century earlier, another patron saint of cosmic insight contemplated this enduring question with equal parts wisdom and warm wit — the pioneering astronomer and abolitionist Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889), a mind amply ahead of her time, who paved the way for women in science and who examined the age-old tension between science and religion throughout the eternally rewarding Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals (public library | free ebook).

Mitchell’s landmark 1847 comet discovery earned her admission into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences — she was the first woman ever inducted, and it would be nearly a century until the second. She later became the first woman hired by the United States federal government for a “specialized nondomestic skill” in her capacity as “computer of Venus” — a one-woman GPS guiding sailors around the world.

As one of the world’s first true academic celebrities, Mitchell had a chance to do something only a handful of her contemporaries did — the girl who came of age on the tiny isolated island of Nantucket grew up to travel the world, visiting various institutions and observatories in England, Italy, and Russia, bringing with her an infinitely compassionate curiosity about the innumerable ways in which life is lived on our pale blue dot.

Portrait of Maria Mitchell (Maria Mitchell Museum, photograph by Maria Popova)

Although she was brought up in a Quaker home, Mitchell never joined any church and was consistently critical of religiosity — another hallmark of intellectual independence that defied her era’s climate. At her funeral, the president of Vassar College, where Mitchell had educated America’s first class of women astronomers and taught for many years, remarked that Professor Mitchell had devoted her life to the conquest of truth and never accepted any statement without studying its claims herself — an embodiment of Galileo’s tenets of critical thinking.

Upon visiting Rome during her European tour in 1858, Mitchell records a striking reflection on the age-old conflict between science and religion, approaching it, as she did everything, from a thoroughly original perspective rooted in the most elemental truths of existence:

This is the land of Galileo, and this is the city in which he was tried. I knew of no sadder picture in the history of science than that of the old man, Galileo, worn by a long life of scientific research, weak and feeble, trembling before that tribunal whose frown was torture, and declaring that to be false which he knew to be true. And I know of no picture in the history of religion more weakly pitiable than that of the Holy Church trembling before Galileo, and denouncing him because he found in the Book of Nature truths not stated in their own Book of God — forgetting that the Book of Nature is also a Book of God.

It seems to be difficult for any one to take in the idea that two truths cannot conflict.

In one of her frequent strokes of wry wisdom, Mitchell adds:

It is a very singular fact, but one which seems to show that even in science “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” that the spot where Galileo was tried is very near the site of the present observatory, to which the pope was very liberal.

And yet that very observatory, set in a church built in 1650, was bloodthirsty for martyrdom of a different sort: Mitchell was denied entry on account of her gender and had to seek special permission from the pope himself — a tragic testament to how humanity has long used the oppressive mythologies of religion to assault not only science but justice and basic human dignity as well. (A generation after Mitchell, Mark Twain would condemn how religion is used to justify injustice.)

Maria Mitchell, standing at telescope, with her students at Vassar

But Mitchell, ever the observer of nuance, is careful to note that religion, like any technology of thought, can be applied equally in ways that obstruct equality and ways that advance it. During her visit to Russia, she contemplates the local approach to religion as an equalizer of humanity:

I am never in a country where the Catholic or Greek church is dominant, but I see with admiration the zeal of its followers. I may pity their delusions, but I must admire their devotion. If you look around in one of our churches upon the congregation, five-sixths are women, and in some towns nineteen-twentieths; and if you form a judgment from that fact, you would suppose that religion was entirely a “woman’s right.” In a Catholic church or Greek church, the men are not only as numerous as the women, but they are as intense in their worship. Well-dressed men, with good heads, will prostrate themselves before the image of the Holy Virgin as many times, and as devoutly, as the beggar-woman.


Then there is the democracy of the church. There are no pews to be sold to the highest bidder — no “reserved seats;” the oneness and equality before God are always recognized. A Russian gentleman, as he prays, does not look around, and move away from the poor beggar next to him. At St. Peter’s the crowd stands or kneels — at St. Isaac’s they stand; and they stand literally on the same plane.

Most of all, Mitchell condemned the hypocrisies and pretensions of religion. She scoffs in her diary after attending a church service in December of 1866:

[The Reverend] chanted rather than read a hymn. He chanted a sermon. His description of the journey of Moses towards Canaan had some interesting points, but his manner was affected; he cried, or pretended to cry, at the pathetic points. I hope he really cried, for a weakness is better than an affectation of weakness. He said, “The unbeliever is already condemned.” It seems to me that if anything would make me an infidel, it would be the threats lavished against unbelief.

After another service, she finds herself appalled at the abyss between blind faith and fact:

The sermon was wholly without logic, and yet he said, near its close, that those who had followed him must be convinced that this was true.

Maria Mitchell (top row, third from left) with the first astronomy class at Vassar, 1866
Maria Mitchell (top row, third from left) with the first astronomy class at Vassar, 1866

By the following year, Mitchell’s frustration with religion’s assault on critical thinking reaches a boiling point:

I am more and more disgusted with the preaching that I hear! … Why cannot a man act himself, be himself, and think for himself? It seems to me that naturalness alone is power; that a borrowed word is weaker than our own weakness, however small we may be. If I reach a girl’s heart or head, I know I must reach it through my own, and not from bigger hearts and heads than mine.

Unlike many, who tend to find religion’s escapist promises of immortality more and more alluring as they confront their own mortality, Mitchell grew only more insistent on truth over illusion as her lifetime unfolded. In her final years, she writes of attending a preacher’s sermon at the Universalist church, which of all religious denominations she found most tolerable:

[The Reverend] enumerated some of the dangers that threaten us: one was “The doctrines of scientists,” and he named Tyndale, Huxley, and Spencer. I was most surprised at his fear of these men. Can the study of truth do harm? Does not every true scientist seek only to know the truth? And in our deep ignorance of what is truth, shall we dread the search for it?

I hold the simple student of nature in holy reverence; and while there live sensualists, despots, and men who are wholly self-seeking, I cannot bear to have these sincere workers held up in the least degree to reproach. And let us have truth, even if the truth be the awful denial of the good God. We must face the light and not bury our heads in the earth. I am hopeful that scientific investigation, pushed on and on, will reveal new ways in which God works, and bring to us deeper revelations of the wholly unknown.

The physical and the spiritual seem to be, at present, separated by an impassable gulf; but at any moment that gulf may be overleaped — possibly a new revelation may come.

In another diary entry, she captures the greatest, plainest frontier of hope for such a reconciliation:

Every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God.

Maria Mitchell
Maria Mitchell

Nearly a century before Einstein contemplated what he famously termed the inherent human “passion for comprehension,” Mitchell considers our parallel thirst for truth and susceptibility to delusion:

We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire; the more we see, the more are we capable of seeing.

Besides learning to see, there is another art to be learned, — not to see what is not.

Complement this particular portion of the endlessly insightful Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals with Aldous Huxley on science and spirituality, Primo Levi on the spiritual value of science, and Alan Lightman on secular transcendence, then revisit Mitchell on science and life, the art of knowing what to do with your life, and how to watch a solar eclipse.

UPDATE: Find more of Maria Mitchell, her unusual life, and her far-reaching legacy, in my book Figuring.


The Art of Knowing What to Do in Life: Pioneering Astronomer Maria Mitchell on Purpose Beyond Expectation and Choice Unbounded by Convention

On rising above the maze of conditions and conditionings that limit who we can be.

The Art of Knowing What to Do in Life: Pioneering Astronomer Maria Mitchell on Purpose Beyond Expectation and Choice Unbounded by Convention

“To know what one ought to do is certainly the hardest thing in life. ‘Doing’ is comparatively easy,” pioneering 19th-century astronomer Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889), who paved the way for American women in science, wrote as she contemplated science and life in her diary. A century earlier, the French mathematician Émilie du Châtelet, who defied the vocational expectations of her era to become a world authority on Newtonian physics, articulated the same sentiment in writing about gender and the nature of genius: “One must know what one wants to be. In the latter endeavors irresolution produces false steps, and in the life of the mind confused ideas.”

And yet there are myriad conditions and conditionings outside ourselves that color and confuse that knowing — not even the fortunate few whose inner eye is animated by an uncommon clarity of vision can claim such a thing as absolute purity of purpose. Even if we were to lay aside the perennially thorny question of free will, the choices we make in life in discerning what we ought to do are invariably limited by our perception of what we can do, which are in turn a function of our individual talents and the cultural canvas of permission and possibility onto which these talents can unfold.

Portrait of Maria Mitchell (Maria Mitchell Museum, photograph by Maria Popova)

I was reminded of this dependency in a recent conversation with an astrophysicist friend about Maria Mitchell and the following generation of women astronomers, many of whom never married and chose science over family life. We wondered how much of a choice that really was — what the opportunities were for women, decades before they could vote or even attend university, to pursue and excel at occupations only available to men at the time, men who were able to devote their days to science because they had someone at home to launder their long-johns and boil their breakfast porridge.

My friend then relayed a turning point in her own life and career as a scientist: In watching a male colleague emulate their shared elders — those typically and therefore stereotypically masculine scientists of yore — she realized, almost with a shock, that being this person was simply not an option available to her. But with the horror and the wistfulness of the realization also came a tremendous sense of liberation — it was in that moment that she found herself free to create different options, to be a different kind of scientist unbounded by the convention of expectations she could never meet. That she is now one of the world’s most venerated astrophysicists is in no small measure thanks to that moment of permission to choose for herself a destiny beyond convention — one which was, then and only then, not a prescription but truly a choice.

In a full revolution, our conversation reminded me of something Maria Mitchell herself, always eons ahead of her time, had articulated in her diary exactly a decade after America’s first class of women astronomers graduated from her program at Vassar. In an entry from August of 1886, found in Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals (public library | free ebook), Mitchell considers the interplay of convention and opportunity with relation to gender in light of the then-novel trend of cooking colleges for women:

I am always afraid of manual-labor schools. I am not afraid that these girls could not read, for every American girl reads, and to read is much more important than to cook; but I am afraid that not all can write — some of them were not more than twelve years old.

And what of the boys? Must a common cook always be a girl? and must a boy not cook unless on the top of the ladder, with the pay of the president of Harvard College?

Maria Mitchell, at telescope, with her students

It seems both obvious and necessary to note that the gendered hierarchy and pay scale in the culinary world has hardly changed in the century and a half since. But Mitchell’s larger point has to do with the question of meritocracy — with the necessity of institutions and social structures that nurture excellence in fields freely chosen on the basis of individual interest and talent rather than on societal expectation. Far from looking down upon the culinary arts as demeaning of women, she argues instead that such careers should be chosen only by those, be they male or female, who are truly passionate about them; that, most important, an equal opportunity for pursuit should be offered in intellectual endeavors, so that the choice between cooking and science becomes truly a choice.

With her characteristic wit and spirited wisdom, she writes:

If the food for the body is more important than the food for the mind, let us destroy the latter and accept the former, but let us not continue to do what has been tried for fifteen hundred years, — to keep one half of the world to the starvation of the mind, in order to feed better the physical condition of the other half.

Let us have cooks; but let us leave it a matter of choice, as we leave the dressmaking and the shoe-making, the millinery and the carpentry, — free to be chosen!

There are cultivated and educated women who enjoy cooking; so there are cultivated men who enjoy Kensington embroidery. Who objects? But take care that some rousing of the intellect comes first, — that it may be an enlightened choice, — and do not so fill the day with bread and butter and stitches that no time is left for the appreciation of Whittier, letting at least the simple songs of daily life and the influence of rhythm beautify the dreary round of the three meals a day.

Mitchell herself fully embodied her credo of authenticity and hard work, writing in her diary at the peak of her improbable, pathbreaking career:

The best that can be said of my life so far is that it has been industrious, and the best that can be said of me is that I have not pretended to what I was not.

Complement with Mitchell on why women are better suited for astronomy than men, the story of how the word “scientist” was coined for the Scottish mathematician and Mitchell’s contemporary Mary Somerville, and pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin, who confirmed the existence of dark matter and whose own career was inspired by Mitchell, on what it’s like to be a woman in science, then revisit Simone de Beauvoir on how chance and choice converge to make us who we are.

UPDATE: Find more of Maria Mitchell, her unusual life, and her far-reaching legacy, in my book Figuring.


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